Pity is Not Solidarity
“I respect you too much to pity you.”
I paused when I heard these words, my hiking boot poised mid-air in search of a ledge on which to land. I was scrambling around a series of caves with members of my spiritual cohort when I heard our leader say this to a young man in our group. After an afternoon of long hikes punctuated by stops to participate in rituals, we were exhausted, our bodies shaking a bit with each further step. My peer had begun to make frequent comments that seemed like attempts to capture our attention. He was hot and tired and worried that his body could not continue to traverse the ground we needed to cover to return to his car.
Each of us had attempted to provide him with different contributions, offerings we thought might help. We dispensed guidance, encouragement, humor -- anything we could think of to change our friend’s state, to alter his experience.
Nothing we said had any effect, until our leader said those words: I respect you too much to pity you.
Something shifted immediately in the young man and in each of us when we heard those words. It seemed there was a realignment that happened in those moments, a repositioning.
And that is exactly what that phrase catalyzed. Each of our previous attempts to help our friend was ineffective, because they did not come from a place of solidarity. There are two clues I can now identify that indicate this lack of solidarity:
An attempt to change someone else’s experience.
A positioning of ourselves in a status above or greater than someone else’s.
Both of these ways of offering help convey pity. And pity cannot coexist with solidarity.
We wanted our friend’s experience to be different than it was -- for him, certainly, but likely also for ourselves. The discomfort we felt grew with each comment he spoke throughout the day. Acts done in solidarity often do attempt to change someone’s situation; we might offer funds to relieve financial strain, time and a listening ear to alleviate loneliness, political advocacy to shift policies that affect others. What indicates that these are acts of solidarity is that they arise from a place of being with others regardless of their state, simply witnessing their experience without trying to change it. Yes, we often work to change the situation they find themselves in, but always from the stance of not knowing what that work will be -- and always accepting fully whatever is their response to those situations, no matter how uncomfortable that response may make us.
Attempting to change someone else’s perspective arise from the belief that we are more powerful, wiser, better than they are. We have the knowledge and authority to alter their experience. Humility is nowhere to be found when we approach others in this way. Instead of sitting down on the ground with them and witnessing whatever is happening for them, we tower above, offering our hand so that we can get them up off that ground as quickly as possible.
Pity exists on a vertical spectrum. When I pity you, I am above you. We can even feel this disparity in our bodies. Here’s a practice to help find where pity lives in your physical form:
Remember a time when you needed help from someone. Maybe you were sick or in distress, perhaps you had lost someone you loved or had experienced something as mundane as a flat tire. Allow the memory to illicit the feeling sense you experienced. Build that with your breath and your imagination until it fills your entire body. Once you’ve got it, picture someone saying to you “You poor thing”, gazing at you with pity in their eyes. Then track the sensations in your body. What arises? How does it feel?
Now flip the script. Imagine coming upon someone who appears to be in need of help or support. See yourself approach that person, hear yourself say, “You poor thing.” Repeat the words until you begin to notice sensation in your body. What arises? How does it feel?
Dig underneath that pity and you may find something else. Pity always involves an unconscious repositioning of ourselves in relationship to another person. What are we attempting to avoid when we work to place ourselves above someone else and “help” from this location?
“Pity costs nothing and ain’t worth nothing.” Josh Billings
I cherish Josh Billings words about pity. They remind me that pity does not require anything of the giver and offers nothing of value to the receiver. Pity also is worthless to those gifting it to others. We may initially feel a sense of pride or esteem when we shower our pity upon someone. But it actually robs us of an opportunity to connect with that person through respect, and thus to respect ourselves. It abolishes our ability to share solidarity, without which we can never know the blessing of standing on common ground with one another.